There is a story told about a Bais Yaakov girl in Poland in the 1930s. She met a local man in the community who criticized her for being Torah observant. You’re so old-fashioned, he said, you must be the only girl in the 20th century who is still so meticulous about religious observance. The Bais Yaakov student answered back to him, I may be the only one in the 20th century, but I won’t be the only one in the 21st century.
Indeed, she was correct. She is not the only one. The Orthodox community today boasts thousands upon thousands of successful, frum, proud members. In some ways, our community is immensely successful. In other ways, we are struggling. Children are going off-the-derech. They feel removed from the community. There’s friction between different segments of the community. Our community continues to grapple with an age-old question: How do we build and create a positive, healthy, successful community for ourselves and for our children? This remains our most burning question moving forward. And Jewish history, our past, suggests four answers: environment, attitude, education, infrastructure.
When the United States of America was born, in 1776, the Jewish community counted around 2,000 members. These Jews of Colonial America were generally successful, wealthy, and educated. They wanted to fit in, and they did. Their intermarriage rate was high, as high as 25 percent. While in our days of intermarriage rates of 50 percent or more, this may seem low, at that time, the intermarriage rate in the rest of the Jewish world was almost zero. Twenty-five percent was astronomical.
Being Jewish in Colonial America was not easy. Many of those who immigrated to America weren’t necessarily religious, and American had no Jewish infrastructure. There were no major Jewish organizations, no yeshivot, and no rabbinic authority. But some Jews cared about being religious, like a German immigrant named Rebecca Samuels. Rebecca liked America, and she did not want to return to Europe. She appreciated the lack of anti-Semitism in America and the unfettered economic opportunities. In many ways, being a Jew in America was much better than being a Jew in Europe. But she acknowledged the difficulties with Jewish life. In the 1790s, she wrote to her parents living back in Hamburg, Germany. She lamented her life in the Jewishly desolate town of Petersburg, Virginia,
Dear parents, I know quite well you will not want me to bring up my children like Gentiles. Here they cannot become anything else. Jewishness is pushed aside here. There are here [in Petersburg, Virginia] ten or twelve Jews, and they are not worthy of being called Jews. We have a shochet here who goes to market and buys terefah [nonkosher] meat and then brings it home…
Rebecca resolved to move her family to Charleston, South Carolina, a “blessed community of 300 hundred Jews.” With 300 Jews, Charleston was a large Jewish community, a place where Rebecca could belong to a real shul and provide her children with a Jewish education.
How will Rebecca manage to raise Jewishly-committed children? She provides our first answer: environment. Rebecca Samuels recognized that she was living in a Jewishly desolate area, an environment in which it would be difficult to raise committed Jews. Therefore, she found a better one. She moved her family to an area with a stronger Jewish environment.
Another Colonial mother, Abigaill Levy Franks, was not as careful with her children’s environment. Abigaill Levy Franks, along with husband, were pillars of the Jewish community and in high social standing in non-Jewish society. Historians know a lot about her because she was a prolific letter writer, and her correspondence with her son in London has survived. Abigaill lived an observant Jewish life. Her husband was a trustee of Shearith Israel, the first shul in America. Her children attended Shearith Israel’s school. Abigaill kept a kosher home. She observed Shabbos and holidays. She instructed her son, who lived with her brother in London, not to eat anything but bread and butter in his home because she did not trust his kashruth.
But despite her strong connection to her Jewish heritage, Franks wrote very little about Judaism in her letters. She wrote about literature and the political and social goings-on in New York City with great detail. But there were no descriptions of Shabbos or holiday meals, of shul services, or any other ritual practice. When she does mention the Jewish community of New York, she expressed disdain. She wrote about how she doesn’t socialize with the other Jewish women in New York, saying, “I don’t often see any of our ladies but at synagogue for they are a stupid set of people.”
The most fascinating part of Abigaill’s letters is her reaction to the event of her life that most devastated her. In September 1742, Phila Franks, her beloved daughter, intermarried. Phila married a fellow member of high society, Oliver de Lancey, a Christian. Abigaill wrote, “I am now retired from town and would from my self (if it were possible to have some peace of mind) from the severe affliction I am under on the conduct of that unhappy girl…My spirits was for some time so depressed that it was a pain to me to speak or see anyone…I shall never have the peace within I have so happily had hitherto. My house has been my prison ever since.” Abigaill vows to never see her daughter again, and she never does.
Why did Phila intermarry? Possibly there was no one Jewish who was her social equal. Greenhorns, new immigrants, would not have been compatible, and we see how her mother referred to the Jews of New York. She did not consider them to be on her family’s social strata. It is possible, even likely, that Phila absorbed her mother’s attitude and negativity towards the Jews of New York.
Historians have a hard time understanding Abigaill’s strong reaction to Phila’s intermarriage. Given that lack of attention to Jewish topics in her letters, historians find her reaction excessive. But the source of Abigiall’s sorrow is very clear to us: She didn’t succeed in transmitting Judaism. She thought her daughter would naturally inherit her beliefs. But she didn’t, especially in light of implicit messages she was getting from her mother. And that was heartbreaking to her.
Edith B. Gelles, a scholar of Abigaill Levy Franks, explains it as follows: “Abigaill took religion for granted…So confident was she about her own Jewish identity, enough so that she felt free to criticize the religion and the people, that she was stunned to discover that her children did not experience the same fundamental loyalty to their lineage.”
We learn from Abigaill Levy Franks the second important factor: attitude. Our children absorb our attitude. If we are positive towards Orthodoxy, towards our community and its leaders, towards other Jews, our children will be positive as well. If we have a negative attitude, however, if we disparage or poke fun at our shuls, our schools, at other Jews, our children will absorb that as well.
So we see that Colonial Jews were dealing with the same fundamental questions we deal with today: How do we raise our children to care about Judaism, about frumkeit? How do we take part in the best that American culture has to offer, while keeping out the negative aspects? As in Colonial times, it’s a challenge. We too live in a society that is kind and welcoming to us. We too struggle with how much to fit into America and how much to differentiate ourselves as Jews. We too wonder whether we are accurately and effectively transmitting our Jewish values to our children.
The story of Abigaill Levy Franks illustrates what happens when parents do not successfully transmit their values and ideals to their children. That same problem repeated itself in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Orthodox community found itself losing its youth in shocking numbers. While both boys and girls assimilated, girls were leaving Orthodoxy in even greater proportions. Some members of the community, including an unknown seamstress who would go on to become one of the most famous personages in Jewish history, identified the cause as a lack of quality Jewish education. That is Sarah Schenirer, founder of Bais Yaakov, the movement for Jewish education for girls.
In the decades before the founding of Bais Yaakov, parents not only allowed their daughters to attend Polish elementary schools and high schools beyond the requisite years, but many encouraged the girls’ intellectual pursuits. Some wealthy Orthodox Jews, or those who lived in small towns without high schools, hired private tutors to teach their daughters Polish, French, mathematics, and science. While it could be considered bitul Torah to teach a boy secular subjects, no such consideration existed in the education of women. On the contrary, Orthodox Jews considered it preferable that women should spend the time acquiring secular skills, so they could later use them to help support the continued learning of the men in their family. One rabbi, in looking for a shidduch for his sister, boasted that she knew how to write Hebrew, Polish and German fluently and had knowledge of Russian as well. These were qualities that could get one a good shidduch in those days.
As a result of their exposure to secular learning, though, girls experienced a great disparity between their intellectual engagement with secular studies and their informal training in the laws and traditions of Yiddishkeit. Studying secular subjects and attending secular schools introduced girls to a new and different set of values, which often led them to adopt changes in their lives incongruous with Orthodox Judaism and to leave their frum communities. Members of the Orthodox community, including Sarah Schenirer and some rabbis, blamed this development on the girls’ lack of any significant Jewish education. They believed that the home no longer provided an adequate Jewish foundation and that the messages girls received in secular schools undermined their informal Jewish education at home. They felt that girls possessed no tools with which to maintain their Judaism once exposed to secular Polish culture and society.
While Sarah Schenirer saw boys and men involved in intense Jewish learning and gaining spiritual inspiration from their rebbe, she viewed women’s religious lives as empty. She perceived girls and young women growing disconnected from religion and tradition, and blamed this distance on their lack of Jewish education. She became determined to teach women and girls about Jewish tradition, and she did.
Bais Yaakov was phenomenally successful. Bais Yaakov introduced girls to a new world of studying Jewish subjects, to limudei kodesh, and trained them to be leaders and educators for the next generation. It provided not only an education but a way to live a frum life in a challenging time and environment. It imparted a self-confidence and pride in being frum, as the story about the proud Bais Yaakov student, above, indicates. It helped create a new generation of Torah personalities that went on to influence the following generations.
Sarah Schenirer saw the problem. She saw disengagement and assimilation. And she formulated a solution: education. She asked the question, how can we create a positive Jewish community for our children? And she answered: education. She saw that the community’s approach to education was no longer working, and, while remaining staunchly traditional, she pushed for innovation and creativity. She shows us that tradition and innovation are not mutually exclusive. A commitment to tradition does not preclude an understanding that, if we remain complacent and don’t continue to move forward with respect to giving our children the best educational opportunities – the best educational grounding to address the challenges of the modern world – we will be failing them.
That is our third answer: educating our children to give them a strong foundation and pride in Judaism, both as parents in the home and by ensuring that our children have the proper school and school environment.
The experiences of these three women illuminate the need for the fourth factor: infrastructure. A community need infrastructure: schools, institutions. Abigaill Levy Franks’ children suffered for the lack of it. Rebecca Samuels and Sarah Schenirer saw the need for it. But for hundreds of years, the American Jewish community did not have it. That changed, in large part, due to the efforts of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. He, like Schenirer, was a master educator.
When Rav Shraga Feivel arrived in America, in 1913, he found an American Jewish community that had not built a strong infrastructure, especially in the realm of education. When large numbers of East European Jewish immigrants began arriving in the 1880s, most chose to send their children to public schools. Between 1880 and 1914, two million East European Jews immigrated to America, and over two-thirds of this number settled in New York. By 1914, almost all of the 275,000 elementary-aged (6- to 14-year-old) Jewish children attended public elementary school.
Rav Shraga Feivel determined to change this reality. Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz was born in Hungary in 1886. Studying under leading rabbis in Hungary, he became inspired to try to teach those Jews who were not religious about Jewish life and traditions and attempt to bring them closer to frumkeit – a true forerunner of the kiruv movement. He married at age 22, and in 1913 moved to America. He taught at a number of Talmud Torah afternoon schools but wanted to accomplish more than these programs allowed him to. In 1921, he accepted a position teaching at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, then an afternoon program that ended in eighth grade. He became principal, and under his leadership the school improved and expanded. He successfully persuaded parents to keep their graduating children in the school and gradually built a high school. This became America’s first yeshiva-mesivta high school, teaching Jewish as well as secular studies. But he wasn’t satisfied with building that one school alone. Before his death in 1948, Rav Shraga Feivel assisted in the founding of other yeshivos as well: Bais Medresh Gevoha, in Lakewood; Chaim Berlin, in New York, Telshe, in Cleveland. He founded a kollel in a then-unknown town called Monsey, and most significantly, he founded Torah Umesorah – the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, the organization most responsible for building an educational infrastructure in America. He built the backbone of Jewish education in America.
Like our Bais Yaakov student, Reb Shraga Feivel was criticized for being old-fashioned. When chided for not living in the 20th century, he responded, “You are right. I am a man of the 21st century.” Indeed, he was a man of the future. He understood that to build a future, a community needs infrastructure. He created that.
Jewish history does not have all the answers to contemporary questions, but it certainly makes some powerful suggestions. If we want to have a successful community tomorrow, we need to work on our environment, attitude, education, and infrastructure today. Those are the factors that have made the difference between success and failure in our past, and would likewise positively impact our future. I hope that, by seeing ourselves in the Jews of the past, by learning from their mistakes and triumphs, we can, with Hashem’s help, raise happy, successful frum children and create a healthy Jewish community for tomorrow.
For the life of Rebecca Samuels, see the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA.org). For Abigaill Levy Franks, see The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks, 1733-1748 by Edith B. Gelles and JWA. For Sarah Schenirer and Bais Yaakov, see my doctoral dissertation,” Defining Bais Yaakov: A Historical Study of Yeshivish Orthodox Girls High School Education in America, 1963 - 1984.” For Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz, see Rav Shraga Feivel by Yonason Rosenblum. The section on Colonial women owes an intellectual debt to the work of Laura Shaw Frank.